This is a story about my son. And my dad. And me. And how sometimes death is not the end of a relationship.
Last year, when my oldest was in 11th grade, I started to have panic attacks about college. I never thought I’d have to deal with this. My husband and I both attended BYU, and while we didn’t love it, it was affordable and academically I’ve always maintained you can get wherever you want from BYU. So I just assumed my kids would do the same. But I hadn’t factored in a kid who a) did not want to attend a Church school; and b) didn’t attend seminary regularly. And let’s be clear; our budget could not stretch to cover all these lovely little liberal arts colleges around here. Plus I did not want him taking on great debt. Which left me thinking Jonah would end up at a UMass. The schools are fine, but are no bargain. I did the math and realized once we covered tuition, he’d need to live at home. I love Massachusetts but it is cruelly expensive. None of these things are the end of the world and I know worrying about college is a privilege. But I also know these decisions can alter our lives. I felt depressed and desperate and greedy for options. Lots of praying ensued.
I called my sister Angela to talk about all this stuff and she joked, “Too bad Dad’s not around to write a letter for you.” I’d forgotten about my very thrifty father’s proclivity for writing letters to save money. When Lee, my oldest brother, applied and got into grad school at UCLA, he was denied instate tuition because he’d gone off to BYU and served a mission so they said he had lost his California residency. The difference between in and out of state tuition was huge and my dad was having none of it. So Dad typed up a forceful missive about why his son was still a CA resident and got Lee his cheap tuition. Next up: Danny, kid number 2, applies to med schools all over the US. He gets into several but is not even granted an interview at UCLA. My dad is outraged. Out of state tuition is a killer and who is UCLA to say no to his Danny? So once again, Dad breaks out the Smith Corona and outlines for UCLA their mistake. UCLA begrudgingly granted Danny an interview…and loved him. A week later he was accepted with a scholarship. Next came Angela who got a medium award to BYU. My dad was convinced that if BYU took SAT scores instead of just the ACT, her scholarship would have been more. So he said as much to President Holland in a forceful letter. Elder Holland politely denied his request. But by golly Dad tried! And then there’s me. I was never up for anything that required a letter. My dad was so happy I just got in to BYU that he didn’t even care that we had to pay full price. If anything, it was my fault, and not BYU’s, that nothing was special enough about me to merit a discount.
The last weekend in January 2014 I was at my friend’s house in the Berkshires with a group of really smart, interesting women. During a conversation about college with my new friend Julia, she mentioned something about one of her kids considering Utah State University. “But out of state tuition is a bummer,” I said. She replied that USU has a special deal where kids of their alumni can get instate tuition. “That’s wonderful,” I said. “I wish it extended to grandkids since my dad was an Aggie.” She told me that come to think of it, due to the lowering of the missionary age, she’d heard that USU might have extended the tuition break to grandkids of graduates to keep their numbers up. As she spoke these words a door opened in my mind. My dad went to USU. Tuition would be affordable. It’s strong in science and engineering, which Jonah wants to study. Logan is a great college town. We have lots of family in Utah to be a safety net. Jonah could leave home but not take on massive debt. And religiously it’s neutral. If he wanted to attend church, awesome; but nobody would stalk him if he didn’t.
The following Monday I called USU and asked if it was true, that grandkids of graduates could get instate tuition. Yes, the woman said. It’s called the Legacy Scholarship. That night I told Jonah about it all and he also seemed relieved—and excited. He immediately started googling and tells me about “genetically-modified goats that produce milk containing the spider silk proteins that can be used in their research on synthetic material for artificial ligaments.” So nerdy and so cool.
I called Angela that night and told her that dad had come through for me on the college front. She laughed and said, “Hon, you finally got your letter—from the grave.” I teared up a bit as I thought about that, and how I just assumed that relationships have a hard stop in death. My relationship with my father was always strained. We were incapable of giving the other what the other needed: I yearned for acceptance and engagement; he expected excellence and conformity. Since his passing seven years ago, I have felt his love in ways I never did when he was alive. And since my grandmother passed last summer, I often dream of her and awake feeling like I’ve just spent the afternoon with my best friend. For Christmas I bought myself a copy of Brian Kershisnik’s “She Will Find What is Lost.” When I first saw it, I was speechless. It captures what I know has happened to me. I have been buoyed up by loving people I cannot see. I just never realized my dad was among them. I now accept that those on the other side are indeed present with us, rooting for us, and occasionally, writing letters for us. We can find what was lost.
Jonah was accepted to USU and starts this fall.